Sweeps Sag, Nets Looking Forward

Mar 2, 2008  •  Post A Comment

This year’s February sweeps period might carry a writers strike-related asterisk, but networks are still left wondering how to clean up the mess of an abysmal ratings period.
With the exception of Fox and MyNetworkTV, whose ratings rose, the networks hobbled across the sweeps finish line.
The big four networks pulled in an adjusted 12.4 average rating in the 18- to 49-year-old age group, down 21% from last year. It’s the largest year-to-year drop in at least a decade. The average annual decline over the last 10 years was just 3%.
As the Writers Guild of America strike played havoc with original scripted programming slates, networks were left to cobble together a slapdash sweeps schedule, trying a multitude of different tactics to get fresh content on the air.
Networks turned to sister channels to increase their scripted programming, with NBC bringing over episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” from the USA Network and CBS importing “Dexter” from Showtime. Both panned out well.
NBC’s experiment with deploying Web series “Quarterlife” in prime time was less successful, however: The show posted the network’s lowest ratings in the Tuesday 10 p.m. slot in almost 17 years. The show is being moved to the Bravo cable channel.
Networks also expanded the length of reality episodes on their slates. NBC aired two-hour episodes of “The Biggest Loser: Couples.” The strike-stricken schedule forced unusual matchups, such as NBC stacking “Celebrity Apprentice” opposite ABC’s “Lost” and CBS’ “CSI” on Thursday.
Viewers were left struggling to determine where new episodes were appearing. Some programs, such as Fox’s “House,” still had new episodes running into February, but weren’t airing them regularly or in their normal time slots.
Even monster ratings grabbers, such as the Oscars and the Grammys, were off the mark, putting up historically low ratings. Neither production was directly affected by the writers strike, but both suffered from a lack of promotion because viewers weren’t around to watch ads for the awards shows.
Super Day for Fox
The Super Bowl helped supercharge Fox’s sweeps numbers, as the game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants became the most watched football championship of all time. CBS’ sweeps results were skewed from 2007, when it had the Super Bowl.
Now that it’s over, most networks are shrugging their shoulders and moving forward toward May, the next sweeps period.
The sweeps, which help determine advertising prices charged by stations, are less important than they were 20 years ago. But they’re still a culturally important touchstone for networks, which consider them useful snapshots of how they are doing and usually program specials and stunts to pique viewer interest.
Aside from this year’s strike, most executives consider February sweeps a chaotic period to compare against anyway, as NBC scores massively every four years with the Winter Olympics and networks need to account for the Super Bowl, which rotates among the networks.
Anomaly or not, how do the networks plan to lure back viewers?
They’ve gone into overdrive, trying to crank out as many episodes of their scripted series as they can before summer.
“Networks are using the strike as a promotional tool,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University.
In the end, Fox came out on top, 33% (5.2 vs. 6.9) ahead of last year’s sweeps, thanks to a heavily watched Super Bowl and workhorse “American Idol.”
ABC placed second, NBC took third and CBS was fourth.
Among the English-language networks, The CW took fifth place.
Spanish-language network Univision had a 1.6 rating, which actually beat The CW’s showing.
MyNet built up its audience, growing 150% over last year’s numbers (0.2 vs. 0.5), after abandoning the telenovela format in favor of reality shows.


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